Nick Scordino seems to have a knack for notable days. A resident of the Veterans Home of California-West Los Angeles, he turned 97 years old on Memorial Day 2019. His last day in the Army Air Corps happened to be Thanksgiving Day 1945, six months after the Germans surrendered in World War II.
And, according to his military record, he flew in the wave of P-38s, bombers, and others among the 2,200 aircraft that pounded German positions in advance of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Well, almost. Scordino and his unit watched the plane they’d armed with bombs and ammo roar off over the English Channel, along with those carrying paratroopers and equipment.
“We got credit for being on the first (wave of) flights the night before,” Scordino said. “We’d loaded it to the gills. They (the planes) began taking off before dark, coming over the rest of the night. We figured out it was the beginning of the invasion. I didn’t know they could put that many planes in the air at once, but they did.”
June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. Each year, TV documentaries show film footage depicting the horrific fighting at Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, and three others where 4,414 – 2,499 of them Americans – died that day during the assault on the Germans. But frequently ignored are those involved in support of an invasion that never could have succeeded without their efforts.
Arriving in Britain several months earlier, Scordino was part of “Operation Bolero,” the massive logistics enterprise that moved 1.2 million troops and 1.9 million tons of supplies to Britain in preparation. The efficiency of the massive undertaking, led by Lieutenant General John H.C. Lee, prompted General Dwight D. Eisenhower to claim that Lee turned Britain into “one gigantic air base, workshop, storage depot and mobilization camp,” according to one account.
While the boots on the ground knew something big was going to happen, they had no idea of its magnitude nor of the timing. “It was a secret, the way everything was planned out,” Scordino said.
The invasion itself was named “Operation Overlord.” Scordino and others kept loading and reloading the planes for mission after mission. In fact, Allied forces flew 14,674 sorties between midnight and 8 a.m. Most of the planes returned undamaged from the initial wave, he said. But soon the carnage and shot-up planes filled the medical facilitiess and parts of the airfield in southern England. “Pilots were coming back wounded,” Scordino said. “And (the airfield) began to look like an auto junkyard. Some planes were shot up pretty bad.” He slept, when time allowed, outside in Britain’s damp air as planes continued to take off and land at a furious pace.
Not until about 12 days later did he and others in his unit pile into LSTs, cross the Channel and land at Omaha Beach, where Allied forces now controlled the Normandy coast. Upon landing, they climbed the steep bluff to load more ordinance onto planes on an airfield hastily constructed out of the famed metal Marston Mats that gave the Allies a huge advantage in the push across Europe and also in the Pacific campaigns. “We had to take everything apart from England and put it back together after we landed on the beach in France,” Scordino said. “There were two echelons: Advanced and rear. The rear always came along a few days later. The mats were already there when we got there.”
While they heard the sounds of German artillery firing at the Allied ships, he said he didn’t encounter enemy fire on the ground. In fact, most of the wounds his unit suffered came from stingers. “The French had lots of honey bees up there,” he said. “They were stinging the heck out of us. Several of our guys – you could hear ’em yelling, ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ We had to live with those bees for several weeks.”
As the fighting pushed east toward Germany, Scordino moved with it, to the devastated down of St. Lo and on to LeMans, where the Ninth Air Force IX Engineer Command built a new airstrip in the city known more for its 24-hour auto race. His unit continued to support air attacks throughout the remainder of the war in Europe, seeing German forces periodically, including when a small group were allowed to drive through an Allied encampment undeterred. “We were ordered to leave them alone, and not shoot until we were ordered to,” he said. “I don’t know why.” The order never came, and the Germans went. That was the closest he got to them until his unit reached eastern Germany, where he was when the Nazis surrendered in May 7, 1945.
Six months later, Scordino sat down to Thanksgiving Dinner at Beale Air Force Base, Marysville in northern California. “It was my last meal in the service,” he said. He mustered out the next day, returning to civilian life as a barber, marrying, raising a family, and eventually moving to Los Angeles.
As the D-Day anniversary approaches each year, Scordino drifts back in memory to those makeshift airfields in southern England on Normandy, to the roars of the planes, the sounds of the artillery, that moment in time. Often, the recollections are vivid. At other times, they seem like an out-of-body experience.
“It brings back memories even though we forget the magnitude of it,” he said. “It fades away, but doesn’t disappear. I’ve forgotten a lot, but I remember a lot. Being in the Army Air Corps, we didn’t do the fighting ourselves. Doing what we were doing, we weren’t heroes. Some of our pilots died. They were heroes. Everybody had a job do to.”
As history suggests, they did it very well.